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Vowel Meadows: Seamus Heaney’s Catches

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Like so many, I have been very deeply saddened to hear of Seamus Heaney’s death this morning. Like so many, I have held his work closely for many years, and have heard and continue to hear in my mind’s ear the echoes and soundings of his careful resonant lines. He remains a presence. He has been for me one of the few poets who maintained a thorough and unwavering faith in the capacity of the lyric to speak in and to and with our late world. He seemed always to believe, when others fell away, in the essential and abiding interdependencies of earth and speech. He listened. Spoken, his poems each found a particular catch in the voice.
I have been re-listening to The Poet & the Piper, a collaborative recording he produced with Uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn a decade ago. Most of the poems Heaney reads on the CD have to do with folk music, with listening, with voice, and many of them are closely familiar to his readers.  The second-to-last track is a recitation of “Postscript,” a poem that comes from his 1996 collection The Spirit Level:
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
The rhythmic lilt and lift – setting the withheld beat that closes “capture it,” for instance, against the firm iambic heartbeat asserting itself in the rhymed phrase, “a slate-grey lake is lit” – is all Heaney, and reinforces the medial position, “neither here nor there,” in which he characteristically positions himself in his later work. But this shore-line sense of self and place – and the geography is specific and significant: Clare south of Galway on the western edge of Europe, the light and wind smashing and buffeting in from the mid-Atlantic – has little to do with poetic diffidence or last-Romantic fraughtness. (Are those Yeats’s nine and fifty swans?) This isn’t, for me, Heaney’s more violent version of the poet’s body as an Aeolian (or even Uilleann) harp. Rather, his lyric frames and expresses a different order of self awareness. What catches and moves him involves both the estranging sublimity of the oceanic – the bottomless centre of his “Bogland” well – and the necessary inadequacy of language, its pathos. The “catch” in the last line, I think, names both the beautiful and moving brokenness of speech and the song-form – a catch is a traditional round – that utters this insufficiency and makes it sing, in second-hand human terms. The poem, with its opening unlinked conjunction, sounds to me more like a promise to make time “some time” to revisit that sublimity than an assertion or claim to have done it. His autochthony – emblematized in a diction obsessed with turf and rock and root and water – strikes me never as a given but always as a coefficient of desire, as want. In “Postscript,” he wants to keep the experience unfinished: a futurity, a need. And it’s this address to uncaught air and light, to the medial textures of encounter, that lets Heaney’s poem do its deep, keen work, that crafts his faith.


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